Remote work and lockdown: how does it impact employees’ engagement?

20 March 2020 | Coronavirus

By : Marine Lhomel,

It is official, most workers in Belgium now have to work from home. A first-of-its-kind situation which, in times of crisis, invites us to think about the cultural transformation that such an ordeal is going to induce at a behavioural level in the coming weeks. How much impact isolation can have on employees’ engagement towards their organization and colleagues? Why collaborative governance might be the answer?

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A deep cultural change that requires some finetuning

Team efficiency does not only depend on organizations capacity to provide them with material, IT access, procedures nor well-defined roles. Within the context of remote work in a crisis, efficiency relies on organizations ability to show flexibility on how each team manages its own way of working to achieve results, not on duplicating the office working conditions at home. This makes the difference between a structural and a cultural approach.

How collaborative governance can help change management?

In times of change, companies’ centralized management is jeopardized since their environment becomes too complex to handle. Therefore, it is important that all the layers of the organization have the capacity to adapt rapidly. By giving more “local” autonomy in a well-defined framework, collaborative governance allows the company to smooth its transition phase. How? By explicitly asking each team to actively think about their own strategies and organization, but also to implement the adaptations that are required, with a minor consultation that does not imply waiting for top-down approval. This whole process takes place in a predefined context wherein the members of the organization can react appropriately based on their expertise, their field experience as well as their understanding of the global strategy. In doing so, companies build more adaptive structures (not centralized ones) with an organic strategy that is faster, appropriate and respectful of the different stakeholders involved. It is also important to highlight the positive impact on employees’ engagement which is generated by satisfaction related to an active participation in complex issues management.

Receiving information on time or how to end with law Z

Such a radical and sudden change that the one induced by the coronavirus crisis requires to know the ins and outs of the situation, to understand them, to integrate them (awareness) in order to act, to implement a new system (transition) that will be communicated to the whole team (standardisation). In change management, this is what we call law “Z”: leaders in organizations who took weeks – sometimes months – before approving a common vision and action plan, expect from employees to assimilate and own change within a few days after announcement.

Law Z

Law Z

Beyond a corporate culture that does not involve enough employees in a decision-making process that might primarily affect them, it is often the individual dimension that is left out of the equation. Changing an organization is not only about how people take the news, it implies to assess the time and means they need to adapt and find a new rhythm.

When the leaders of an organization make a decision, they have to make sure that all the members of this organization have at least as much time as they did to come to the same mindset and to the same level of maturity to change. This authentic approach implies to take into account the famous fundamental needs as described in the pyramid of Maslow, at the risk of being confronted with one of the most organic human processes: reluctance to change.

How collaborative governance can help make change coherent?

In an authentic collaborative approach, the leaders of the organization must build trustworthy relationships with the rest of the teams. To create trust and bonds, collaborative governance encourages more inclusive and transparent decision-making processes. How? First, by setting-up a system where power is granted according to the expertise, not only to the position on the corporate ladder. Secondly, by clarifying the roles and responsibilities of each member in the company value chain. Finally, by delivering a true, realistic and regular communication.

Coping with the reluctance to change, even urgently

As the proverb says, “Rome was not built overnight” and, even when all priority measures were taken, no organization is safe from troubles, be it originally structural, cultural or individual. This is even truer when the coronavirus crisis has forced and accelerated the transformation of companies which, for most of them, were not prepared for such a rapid and brutal mutation.

Companies must accept, to a certain extent, that mistakes will be made. There will be IT bugs, procedural errors with collaborative tools, mutual misunderstanding of people’s roles and responsibilities. This dysfunction is due to the difficulty people experience when they have to change their habits, get out of their comfort zone and adopt a new way of thinking.

When you know you do something great in a certain way, it can be destabilizing to know that, as from now, you will have to do it in a completely different manner at the risk of performing less (at least in the beginning). This is why organizations must keep in mind that the immediate objective is not perfection, but to maintain activities while respecting everyone.

How collaborative governance can help people better live change?

Collaborative governance consists in giving a precise framework wherein everyone is autonomous. In other words, it offers very clear rules that must be respected by all, with moderate consultation, while being free to make decisions and take measures that seem necessary and of the utmost importance. This combination of flexibility and structure associated with a common vision that is well communicated empowers each member of the organization to move on progressively, not as a “victim” who is subjected to change, but as an active player that contributes at his/her own scale.

Reinforcing interpersonal trust

Times of crisis are a true revelator of companies’ need of control: the least influence they have on events, the more they want it. “When winds of change blow, some build walls, while others build windmills”. Remote work is a perfect illustration of this Chinese proverb: when facing social distancing and virtual working environments, some companies tend to tighten control on employees, while others decide to trust them.

On the one hand, homeworking allows us to set-up a functional framework while, on the other hand, giving more autonomy to individuals. At this stage, companies should raise the right questions. This is precisely where collaborative governance can help companies considering the situation from another angle: what if, instead of using technology as a systematic supervisory tool, they use it to create working conditions that will favor efficiency and productivity not as an end in itself, but as the consequence of employees’ intrinseque motivation and engagement towards the organization?

How can collaborative governance help leaders to let it go and employees to be more committed?

Beyond meetings, follow-up emails and project management, social media, instant messaging softwares and online collaborative tools can be used to support employees’ professional and self-development. It can also be used to reassure them, to guide them, to stimulate their creativity, to inspire them or to allow them to focus when the crisis burden becomes too heavy. For a company, investing time in nurturing the employees relationship – rather than in watching them – amounts to starting a virtuous organic circle wherein people who feel that they are listened to, understood and valued will naturally tend to commit more. Within the coronavirus context, allowing them to express their fears and difficulties should also help them going through harsh times more easily.

Mitigating a risk to generate another one?

In the current circumstances, if lockdown and remote work can mitigate the spreading of the coronavirus outbreak in Belgium, they can also, in the mid and long run, have a significant impact on teams’ mental health. This is even truer when homeworking becomes mandatory. In a 2017 report entitled “Working anytime, anywhere: The effects on the world of work”, the International Labour Organization highlights the psychosocial risks that are potentially associated with intensive remote work.

On top of the traditional risks that we can identify at work, such as stress, harassment, violence or conflicts, remote collaboration induces new paradigms that are likely to increase employees’ mental health issues (burn-out). Just like a gilded cage, remote work would create a “voluntary servitude” from employees who, in order to prove that they deserve the flexibility that they were granted by the employer, will adopt a submissive behavior to reflect the idea they think their employer has of homeworking and, by the way, to legitimate their homeworker status. Invading personal space with working activities, becoming available anytime and anywhere, being isolated from the rest of the team are as many constraints that can significantly affect the well-being of remote workers.

From a legal perspective, there are ways to protect employees and prevent psychosocial risks associated with remote work. Indeed, working from home must be approved and regulated in a way that preserves people’s freedom, autonomy and work-life balance. These regulations deal with working hours, workload, modes of communication, modes of control, production norms, key performance indicators, etc.

How can collaborative governance help prevent psychosocial risks associated with intensive remote work?

Peoples’ well-being is a fundamental principle in collaborative governance. The objective is not to be happy at work, but to feel as empowered as possible to unlock our full potential and co-create value. By allocating power to each member of the organization based on his/her expertise and by making diversity an asset, collaborative governance opens a new space where everyone is where he/she thinks they have to be, without playing a role nor competing with anybody. Just by being themselves and having future prospects, employees will be able to spend their time on strategic and operational issues that really matter.

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